Learning, Connectivism, AI, Virtual Environments

I’m still thinking about the video-conversation of Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Maybe we could change the title of the course from the rather bland ‘E-Learning 3.0, Distributed Learning Technology’ to ‘Human Learning in the Age of Machine Learning’.

After all, Connectivism, the learning theory developed by Stephen en George, is about “the idea that knowledge is essentially the set of connections in a network, and that learning is the process of creating and shaping those networks.”
Wikipedia explains that “learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing”.Connectivism sees knowledge as a network and learning as a process of pattern recognition.

Which means, as is explained in the video, that in times of rapidly developing Machine Learning Connectivism is a very suitable learning theory. It blends philosophy, educational practices and technological skills. It emphasizes the ability to make decisions and to choose what to learn, connecting with others and thus empathizing with those others. The theory is also related with the Extended Mind ideas of the philosopher Andy Clark.

Virtual Reality and Virtual Environments enhance human connections, they turn telepresence into much more than videoconferencing: they enable people who are dispersed all over the planet to share the same space. Downes mentions Virtual Reality in his slide show “Personal Learning versus Personalized Learning“, but I’d love to elaborate on the possibilities and the many aspects involved in VR and learning. Not only humans benefit from virtual environments, simple virtual worlds are also used to train artificial intelligences to acquire a basic knowledge about the world (like elementary physics) which make those intelligences grow in their world-knowledge. There are many other aspects: for those interested in distributed networks, the virtual world High Fidelity (optimized for VR) uses a distributed architecture, a cryptocurrency and it registers digital assets using a blockchain.

In 2008 we discussed Connectivism with a small group of learners in Second Life. It’s not too late to organize similar experiences for this course.

What and how to learn and teach in times of Artificial Intelligence?

The education theorists, practitioners and technologists George Siemens and Stephen Downes united again for the course E-Learning 3.0. Stephen was in a hotel room in Toronto and George somewhere in Australia, but the wonders of YouTube made them unite (after a search for the light switches).

In my earlier posts I referred to the very first MOOC they facilitated (the very first MOOC in general) in 2008, Connectivism & Connected Knowledge (CCK08). There were about 2,000 participants, these days it seems harder to get that many people. Reasons might be the marketing power of Coursera, edX and similar big platforms, the fact that big social media (Facebook) seemed to make blogging and RSS-feeds less relevant.

What else changed? In the video-discussion george Siemens mentions Artificial Intelligence (AI). If machine learning can learn about everything humans can learn, why would we still learn? One part of the answer is that as humans, we cannot not learn. But what is uniquely human? Is it, as he says, compassion and kindness? The ‘beingness’ of humans?

Stephen is not convinced. ML could develop ethics too. But maybe the way we experience the world as biological organisms is different from the way an AI can be aware. So humans could be the voice in the AI’s mind telling that there are more ways to look at the world.

If humans cannot not learn, maybe we should think about teaching. Learning at school can be a frustrating experience, and maybe what we require students to learn is not suited in the age of AI. Stephen point out that the capacity to take decisions and to choose by the learner will become even more important. That was obvious already in 2008 when the learners got an avalanche of learning materials to digest during CCK08 and they were told a that time already to pick and choose. Other important aspects, which are not being measured by universities, is the ability to contemplate about our place in the universe and in the community.

Also in the video: an interesting conversation about fake news and blockchain. Attention: the real conversation starts after about 8 minutes. 

How much marketing does a MOOC need?

Stephen Downes’ MOOC about distributed learning, E-Learning 3.0, had a pre-start last week – which I missed, but I watched the recording.

It seems Stephen was a bit disappointed – only a few people turned up for the first live-video, maybe this was just because many thought the course would start on October 15.

Or maybe there are more fundamental reasons. When Stephen en George Siemens facilitated a very first MOOC in 2008, blogs and RSS-readers still were important tools. There was no competition from Coursera, edX, Udemy and other huge and heavily financed platforms. Marketing is all-important in online education these days (and in everything else).

Or is it? Maybe people really look for alternatives. Maybe it does not matter whether you attract 35 participants and not 100,000 – as long as the interaction is deep and creative. But then again I’d personally prefer a rich interaction attracting 100,000, and that huge group would split up into many smaller networks working on their own thing but being inspired by the global MOOC.

We’ll find out much more in the coming weeks.

A MOOC about distributed e-learning

I’m learning about the decentralized web these days. I even made a very simple site using The Beaker Browser and files in the dat-format. On that site I keep track of my adventures in decentralized land.

I’m pretty excited to learn that the education expert Stephen Downes is launching a MOOC about distributed e-learning. He’ll talk about IPFS and other technologies as well. Here is an older post of his about these topics (and many other things).

The course starts on October 15 and I’ll be reporting about it on this blog.I’m not employed in education but in journalism, but serious journalism is a form of education for all those concerned. So I consider myself very much a learner and I always enjoyed what Stephen Downes builds, organizes and facilitates. His newsletter is extremely inspiring.

New media theatre

So many interesting things are happening in and around the virtual world High Fidelity that I can’t keep up. The company raised $35 million in June and combines virtual worlds, virtual reality and the blockchain. Philip Rosedale, creator of both Second Life and High Fidelity, also manages to invite interesting people for in-world talks, and in the aftermath of the capital increase he had a fascinating talk with Charlie Fink, an expert in VR, AR, new media and a columnist at Forbes. He also is the author of an AR-enabled book, Metaverse.

In this video Rosedale explains a bit more about the future of High Fidelity and he and Fink brainstorm about new theatre and movie formats which would convert the spectators into actors – a bit like roleplaying in virtual worlds. All this, like concepts such as volumetric video, is rather new to me. During the discussion I heard about other experiments in virtual environments where spectators were converted into bubbles who could follow the actor around. It is obvious there will be formidable challenges like managing the huge data flows involved and finding an equilibrium between the freedom of roleplaying and the need for narrative structure.

Virtual Reality and “Reality”

I was at Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, France. They also have a VR Arles Festival with a competition for VR productions. Winner is this year Treehugger: Wawona by the London design studio Marshmallow Laser Feast. One becomes a water particle and travels into a giant sequoia tree from the roots to the top. The production also won the Storyscapes Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2017. The installation involves haptic elements (a backpack, gloves, and a fake tree).

The same studio also made In the Eyes of the Animal where you explore the woods through the eyes of different animals. Which made me think of what the VR pioneer Jaron Lanier says about VR, that it makes you see reality in a new way. Philosophers talk about a ‘multiplicity of worlds’ and VR allows us to experience that. Reality is plural.

Virtual worlds and the Infosphere

This week I learned about information philosophy, most notably the work of Luciano Floridi. In this day and age of data and digitalization, he develops an ontology and ethics based on reality-as-information. Virtual worlds geeks will appreciate how the professor also refers to Second Life (and other virtual environments), for instance in his book The Fourth Revolution. He writes about “the infosphere”, “inforgs or information organisms”, being “onlife”.

When I think about Second Life or similar worlds, I consider them as a kind of cyberspace, but the interesting thing about the notion of Infosphere is that the cyberspace is just a part of it. Even so virtual worlds are revealing as these are environments where people acutally live. These days the digital and virtual are blending more and more with the physical reality, inspiring information philosophers to develop an object oriented approach on the basis of “information”: humans, organizations, animals, plants, objects can be studied as information objects with specific functions or methods.

I’m reading now The Fourth Revolution and The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information.

Floridi is also a must-follow thinker on Twitter.

Argument maps, continued

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m looking for 3D or VR argument maps. In the meantime I found out about Noda, which is a fledgling application for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. It’s available on Steam.

On Twitter, Roy Grubb suggested his own software, Topicscape, which is a 3D visualization tool. For 2D online argument mapping, I found Rationale.

I’ll experiment with all these tools.

Looking for 3D or VR argument maps

Fascinating: IBM trained an algorithm in debating humans. There’s still some way to go, but the results were pretty impressive. I don’t know about IBM’s Project Debater, but there is an interesting history of philosophical research into argumentation. This inspired practices such as argument mapping. Like mind maps and concept maps, argument maps can become pretty complicated. I could imagine 3D argument maps could be interesting, but as yet I did not find software enabling 3D or VR argument maps. Maybe I should give it a try using some virtual environments such as Second Life or High Fidelity, but it would even be nicer to build browser-based tools or apps. Just imagine the possibilities of live group sessions using immersive argument mapping.

Philosophy and tech: speech acts, ethics

(‘Philisophy and tech’ is a series of posts in which I discuss very briefly philosophical issues I encounter reading stuff about technology)

Last week Google published ethical principles guiding its AI development and research. Richard Waters of the Financial Times quotes AI-professor Stuart Russell at the University of California, Berkeley, who says that Google has to think about the output of their algorithms as a kind of ‘speech act’. What he means is that when people use their AI-enabled tools, such as searching texts or images, the responses generated influence the way people look at the world and ultimately change their behavior and convictions. It’s not about ‘mere talking’ but about doing stuff in the real world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a lot about speech acts. An interesting take on Google’s new AI ethics can be found at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Also watch professor Russell’s talk at TED2017.